Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Here are Five Awesome Renaissance and Medieval Works that – Surprise! – You’ve Never Heard of

Most people never listen to music from the Renaissance or Medieval eras. It’s no secret why: no funky beats, catchy melodies, or danceable rhythms. The style is completely foreign to contemporary ears. BUT… is it all really so unlistenable and boring?

Below are five pieces that are quirky, beautiful, crazy, or just downright weird. 10 points if you’ve heard of any of them. 20 points if you listen to them all the way through. How many points can you get?

5. Carlo Gesualdo: "Moro, Lasso"

Gesualdo is a famous late Renaissance composer… mostly because he murdered his wife and her lover. As a nobleman, he basically got away with it, but he was overcome with guilt for the remainder of his life. His remorse is made manifest in much of his music, which is hauntingly beautiful, very complex, and often terribly sad. “Moro, Lasso” is a quintessential example – such extreme chromaticism would not again be heard for 200 years or more.

4. Solage: "Fumeux Fume"

Easily the strangest piece in the list. We know almost nothing about Solage, a 14th century composer of a complicated style of music called ars subtilior. Much of the music in this style is rhythmically complex, but “Fumeux Fume” is unique for not challenging rhythms, but rather harmonic and melodic weirdness. Notably, the piece dwells on an interval called the ‘tritone’ (think the interval from C to F#), which at that time was called ‘Diabolus in musica,’ or the Devil in Music. It was generally diligently avoided.

3. Luca Marenzio: "Solo e pensoso"

Luca Marenzio was a 16th century composer, incredibly influential in his day. I included this piece because of the prominent chromatic scale at the beginning, which I think is really cool.

2. William Byrd: "Agnus Dei from Mass for 4 Voices"

As a practicing Catholic in England at a time when the government viewed Catholics with great suspicion, William Byrd had to tread lightly. That didn’t stop him from getting in a lot of trouble, however. This decidedly Cathloic Mass features a remarkable section towards the end of the Angus Dei in which there is dissonance on every single beat. In addition to being masterfully well written, it also sounds gloriously awesome.

1. Pérotin: "Viderunt Omnes"

This might be the most obscure piece in the list. Pérotin was an early 13th century composer who was highly regarded for his advances in polyphony (music with multiple, independent melodies running simultaneously. Viderunt Omnes is a very early example of polyphonic music – in this case, three similar, though distinct, melodies are sung over a drone.

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